Argo places us so much in the middle of the furious crowd storming the American Embassy in Tehran -- and the captives inside who see it coming -- that the episode is viscerally frightening. Back home, the Hollywood players who create a fake movie as a cover for the CIA rescue mission of Americans is full of hilarious lines sending up the movie business. One of the wonders of Ben Affleck’s extremely entertaining film is how easily he shifts from the threatening to the comic, keeping a steady balance.
Another wonder is how well the film reflects our cultural moment. Argo is not political, despite its subject; yet it captures the odd mix of fear, absurdity and obsession with entertainment that informs the national mood. That’s not to say Affleck was trying to be so trenchant, just that Argo, like the most astute mainstream movies, finds us where we live. Building on the triumphs of his contemporary crime films Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck the director proves that he is a master of a genre that seems like an oxymoron: thoughtful entertainment.
As anyone even vaguely interested in film knows by now, Argo is based on a true story, enhanced as Hollywood movies are. Six Americans who escaped that 1979 attack and found safe haven in the Canadian Embassy were rescued when a CIA agent named Tony Mendez (played by Affleck with a shaggy ‘70’s mop of hair ) masqueraded as the Canadian producer of a bogus sci-fi film called Argo and secreted them out disguised as his crew.
But you have to see the film to experience how harrowing those early scenes of the crowd attacking the Embassy are, as the mob burns an American flag, shatters the Embassy gates, the camera in the center of the orchestrated chaos. This amazing bit of filmmaking (Rodrigo Prieto, whose work includes Brokeback Mountain and Babel, is the cinematographer) gains resonance because it mirrors recent news reports from the Middle East more closely than the filmmakers could have known when they started. (Although the repeated history of anti-American demonstrations sounds like an educated guess.)
Everything else in Argo works just as smoothly, from Chris Terrio’s sleek screenplay to the actors, none quite as starry and none as central to the story as Affleck himself. The embassy captives include Tate Donovan as the senior official, and they display varying degrees of suspicion about Mendez’ hare-brained plan. Bryan Cranston play his CIA boss, who spars with Agency and White House functionaries, who are full of bad ideas. Some of them eventually realize that Mendez’s is the least bad option they have. (And isn’t that just how we assume government functions?)
The Hollywood part of the story, in which Mendez sets up the fake production, has the flashier, fun roles, with John Goodman and Alan Arkin as the pair who set up the fake Argo, complete with a costumed table read that resembles a Star Wars convention. Arkin has the best line, which is likely to be worn out in a minute, but absolutely works within the film. Asked what his movie’s title means – does it have anything to do with Argonauts? -- he answers, “Argo, fuck yourself,” which becomes the Hollywood-CIA team’s catchphrase. The lines skewering the film industry and its inflated egos work not because the observations are fresh (they aren’t ) but because they’re delivered with such droll panache it’s as if we’re discovering Hollywood’s idiocies all over again, and because the ideas feed into our knowledge of how the movie business operates. A producer who in the end produces nothing is just a commonplace.
Eventually Argo becomes an escape movie, and also becomes weaker. With its disguises, new identities and fake passports for the Americans, the film sometimes plays like Mission Impossible without the special effects. We know the Americans were rescued, and it’s tough to build suspense around a known ending, so Argo piles on the near-escapes.
But the plot is, finally, the least impressive thing about the film (as impressive at the story was in reality). Argo reflects how we think about government, Hollywood, and the link between the two. Its mix of terror and humor perfectly suits two ideas at the heart of the culture: that the world could explode at any time, and that much of politics is a branch of show business.